Sarah Miller: Doctor of Physiotherapy, 2015. Team Leader & Senior ICU Physiotherapist, Kings College Hospital, London
As Sarah Miller (Doctor of Physiotherapy, 2015) settles back into life in Melbourne, she reflects on her experiences at one of the largest hospitals in London during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Sarah, each day began with a 2-hour bike ride and walk (instead of 45-minute tube) past the uncharacteristically deserted Buckingham Palace. She used this long commute, careening through the quiet streets of London, to call family and friends in Melbourne, for a small slice of home before succumbing to the frenetic pace of daily work. Sarah’s decision to move to London saw her transition into a role as Team Leader at Kings College Hospital, working as one of the Senior ICU Physiotherapists in the respiratory team during COVID-19. With a 300% rise in capacity and a hospital-wide emergency response, her additional clinical leadership and respiratory expertise was crucial.
During COVID-19, Sarah’s work was a combination of fundamental physiotherapy treatments and support for various transdisciplinary tasks. The department was reshuffled to disperse the skill mix across the hospital to allow for respiratory and senior support redistribution. She also took on a role as a Clinical Educator, assisting in the teaching of a junior physiotherapist ‘buddy’ as well as supporting nursing peers who had been redeployed to take on unfamiliar tasks related to the new demands of the pandemic. The environment was chaotic and ever-changing, but her team made the effort to always remember the human beings at the centre of their care. Simple decisions to incorporate iPads into treatment sessions enabled patients to virtually connect with their loved ones, mitigating the impact of the isolation that can be demoralising for patients with COVID-19, where delirium and poor emotional health were the two biggest barriers to participation in rehabilitation.
For Sarah, the pandemic unexpectedly exposed something remarkable about the hospital system. “At various points in my career I have found myself incredibly frustrated at how we operate as a workforce in health,” she says, “These frustrations are centered around how people communicate (or don’t) with each other as well my passion for a holistic approach to healthcare.” Yet when COVID-19 hit with formidable intensity in London, this singular vision was traded in for a more holistic approach to health. She recalls that when the excessive ‘red tape’ was torn down, multidisciplinary hospital functions all came together to work more effectively as a team with a common objective. This flexibility was universal, and she found herself personally engaged in many tasks, like running stock and supplies, that were not typically part of her normal role. “In a very high stress and unknown time, for me this part was completely unexpected,” she reflects, “As a workforce we thrived.”
This passion for holistic healthcare was partly what drove Sarah to study physiotherapy. After completing her undergraduate studies in the United States, she was excited by the idea of being surrounded by like-minded peers at the University of Melbourne while pursuing her postgraduate doctorate. Sarah found herself motivated by the “heavy non-physio curriculum” opportunities with leadership elements, broader health priority areas, significant research, and a lifespan approach. She says she has “always been interested in contributing to health more broadly” and studying the Doctor of Physiotherapy opened a door to a transdisciplinary perspective and desire to make a larger impact.
Sarah’s experience in London at the height of the pandemic has consolidated her desire to open a new door on her career. Thought leadership with respect to the hierarchical model of management in hospitals and untapped digital opportunity are two areas she would like to contribute to and see meaningful growth in the future of Australian healthcare. Sarah has found that “as physios, our skills and professional profiles seem to excel in stressful environments and are transferable to clinical leadership”. Sarah believes, that “physios are one of the therapy trained professionals in healthcare that could be a hefty part of the puzzle” to harness proactive curiosity, strategic negotiation and risk analysis to address the ever growing demand Australian healthcare places on the economy as most importantly the meaningful impact that can be made for patients and their families. Now, having had the opportunity to engage in health in a more holistic way, through COVID-19 and significant contribution to other social issues like family violence, she looks to transition away from clinical practice and into the realm of broader health strategy and management.
This feedback from a patient who recovered from COVID-19 in her care is a testament to Sarah’s character and skill as a physiotherapist:
“There is one particular lady whom I would like to reach out to…. she commenced my physio whilst in ICU. In my sleep I could respond to her voice and obey her commands. She would get me to raise my arms and smile. She would help me sit up… This lady radiates hope and optimism. I started walking independently before I was discharged and I thank you so much.”
The future for Sarah might move away from the clinical domain, as she looks to combine her business undergraduate and health expertise in the next stage of her career but undoubtedly the impact she has had directly had on patients’ lives will not be easily forgotten.